Trying to write is getting really seriously annoying at the moment. Every time I’m pondering over something I’d like to write about I read another interesting, thought-provoking post in the blogosphere or on the forums, or chapter of a book, and get distracted. It’s particularly annoying with all the elemental shaman developments in the Cataclysm beta at the same time as a slew of insightful posts relating to gender in WoW and WoW culture at the same time as I’m getting into more serious RL research towards my honours dissertation. (Yes, I’m 26 and working on my honours degree – don’t ask.)
The only thing better than complaining about bad things is complaining about too many good things happening at once.
Out of this milieu of interesting topics that I just can’t wait to smother in my opinion comes a comment made by a friend about WoW hard modes. I won’t quote it here because I haven’t asked his permission, but I’ve been wanting to think out loud through the way normal/hard raiding has been done in WotLK for ages and, seeing as I’m actually able to write today, I’m going to do it right now and I’m going to like it. Specifically, I want to look at Ulduar’s design and what I liked and disliked about that, while complaining a bit about Icecrown and where the healing game has ended up.
Unfortunately that’d constitute an enormous wall of text and more than I can handle in one day, so today I’ll lay the foundation so I can write the nice bit about Ulduar tomorrow.
The heroic toggle
Icecrown uses the normal/heroic toggle which was actually designed for 5-man dungeons in TBC, but with clever technical changes to make it work only on bosses rather than the entire instance. When these were first implemented for TBC 5-mans, I presume that the idea was to make the dungeons fun, challenging and rewarding even at level 70 (max level at the time) while still providing levelling content and places for new level 70 characters to get gear which could stepping-stone them into harder stuff. The chief criticism I heard of this was that it was just re-cycling content because the designers were cheap – the same criticism levelled against reskinned tier 2 armor dropping in those dungeons.
Broadly, though, I like the idea, and I think it worked pretty well. The only trouble is that eventually at level 70 very few people I know bothered with any of the “normal” mode dungeons, and heroics became the de facto standard for dungeoneering, something which I think made its way into the design philosophy of Wrath of the Lich King’s 5-mans. Thus in WotLK heroics were relatively easier because of a wide variety of factors, not all of which were, I think, intentional. So in addition to the slight undertuning of most 5-man mechanics there was the higher power of individual characters, the availability of high ilevel gear, the increasing sophistication of the “average” player (the vast majority of former level 70 players having been “trained” through the widely-accessible Karazhan raid to be much better at PvE mechanics in general) and the unexpected inflation in healer power.
Worryingly elitist ranting
Despite their reputation for being “easy”, even the original (non ToC/ICC) LK heroic 5-mans can be pretty tough. I found this the hard way when using the new LFD tool to gear up tank and healer toons from scratch. Put people in appropriate gear in those places and, unless all of them are great players, it’ll be a struggle – at least for the tank and the healer. I say “appropriate gear”, but even with ilevel 213-232 epics they aren’t exactly trivial. I actually don’t go into heroic dungeons until I’m already, objectively speaking, slightly “overgeared” – lots of BoE epics, 2 pieces of tier 9, that sort of thing – but many other players simply jump right in with their levelling greens (and why not? that’s the gear they’re apparently designed for) and oh boy. In my battlegroup, almost every DPS that I’ve done random dungeons with in the past week has been pushing between 1000 and 2500 DPS on AoE packs. Maybe 3k on single targets if I’m really really lucky. In heroic Halls of Lightning it can require some true healer “heroics”. In Halls of Reflection it goes way beyond “heroic”. Everything gets so much harder when people are dying in a couple of AoEs, the tank has to be babysat through every single pull with your finger on the pain suppression button, and you don’t have the benefit of being overgeared by 64 item levels to safely carry everyone through. My last HoR run involved me desperately DPSing despite being nearly OOM to try and finish the Lich King escape event before he reached us and we all asploded.
(This is why, incidentally, I now avoid queueing as a tank or healer if I’m not with at least one friend who can DPS. Unfortunately my dwarf priest can only heal so has to rough it out.)
Um, anyway, I think I was meant to be complaining about Icecrown.
The whole normal/heroic setting is the idea of the binary difficulty toggle – something is either level 1 or level 2. In the case of level 80 normal vs heroic 5-mans, this is ilevel 187 rewards versus ilevel 200 rewards, a gap of precisely one tier. This is the same pattern repeated through normal/heroic versions of the ToC and ICC raids. Just as heroic 5-mans were intended to be completed by people who’d farmed normal 5-mans for the lower level gear, so heroic raids are designed to be completed by people who’ve farmed the normal raid for the appropriate gear. And just as heroic 5-mans are more “difficult” – stuff has more health, does more damage, and uses more abilities – so too for heroic raids.
For a 5-man dungeon though, heroic difficulty is often a way to get you to experience the same dungeon that you probably did while levelling up at a difficulty which is appropriate for a max-level character (as doing a level 70 dungeon at level 80 is not very challenging) and with appropriate rewards to boot. Very few dungeons are actually designed for level 80 players on normal difficulty.
Conversely for a raid, this binary heroic toggle is a way to get you to repeat the content you just did, only now it’s harder. You enter Icecrown, you kill all the bosses, you get all the gear, and then you do it all over again. Only now the numbers are bigger. Nothing is, really, actually any different. Or if it is, it seems that the only purpose is to distract you from noticing how much is still the same. Case in point, the plague on heroic Putricide: the fight is basically the same but now you have this entirely arbitrary pass-the-parcel game going on in the middle.
The Healing problem
I’ve said it before in a segment of a post which didn’t attract much comment: one of the big problems I see with heroic modes in Icecrown is that they just seem to throw a whole bunch of different mechanics at the raid and say “cope with all this stuff for 6 minutes”. There’s very little sense of elegance or choreography. And there’s been a massive rise in the number of insta-death mechanics in heroic fights, which mean that even in mundane and trivial portions of an encounter (e.g. Sindragosa heroic phase 1) there’s an ever present risk that someone will get one-shotted for some inane reason. Sindragosa is particularly obnoxious in this regard because the fight only actually gets difficult after about 5 minutes of avoiding multiple one-shot mechanics, and because it’s so easy for lag or idiosyncrasies in the way the game works to pointlessly and painfully cost you a player in that long, boring initial phase.
At least part of the reason for the rise in this style of design is because healers and tanks got “too powerful”, where the only way to challenge healers was to throw vast amounts of damage at everyone and demand they somehow put out enough HPS to keep up, and/or to engineer situations where people will die within a split second if the healers do not react fast enough, and/or putting in so many competing mechanics that the healers simply cannot stand there healing but instead have to transfer plague or run away from goo or chase after someone else running away from goo or even – SUPER FUN HAPPY TIMES – do all of the above at once.
That was a very long sentence.
I’d like to think that it’s this issue above all else which has made ICC, ToC and RS heroic modes so un-fun and that it’ll therefore be largely solved with the triage healing model in Cataclysm. But what about the whole normal/heroic divide itself? This is where, after having remembered back to the whole origin of a normal vs heroic divide in the first place, looking back to Ulduar is so fascinating. Because I think it comes down to a difference between, “here, have the same instance, only HARDER!!!” and “here, have several different ways to do several parts of the same instance, many of which are HARDER!!!”
So next up, what I liked about Ulduar, and what I liked a bit less. Unless I get distrac OH HEY A BUNNY